A Word about Incense

A member of this congregation lent me a DVD of the movie “The Way.” What a wonderful movie! From the back of the DVD: Martin Sheen plays Tom, an irascible American doctor who comes to France to deal with the tragic death of his son (played by Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen’s real-life son and the director of this movie.) Rather than return home, Tom decides to finish the pilgrimage his son was making, as a way to honor his son. So Tom walks “The Way of St. James” also known as “El Camino de Santiago” to the burial place of St. James. Tom does not plan on the profound impact this trip will have on him as on the way, Tom discovers the difference between “the life we live and the life we choose.”

As I watched this wonderful movie, I kept thinking how are they going to conclude this movie in a way that will do justice to it? Well, the makers of this movie found a way! And that way involves incense. I thought, “Oh wow!” And then the movie had an even more powerful ultimate conclusion. This is a terrific movie that I recommend to you most highly: The Way, from 2010 or 2011, starring Martin Sheen. Wonderful movie!

But the point of this blog is not only to recommend this movie to you. I want to say a few things about incense because we will be using it at worship this week.

Here at Holy Trinity we occasionally use incense because of what it says about incense in the Bible, because of what incense symbolizes, and because of the sense of mystery incense adds to the worship service.

The use of incense at worship goes back far in time. The first thing Christians will remember is that the magi brought two kinds of incense as gifts for the Christ child: frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:10-11). You will remember singing from the third verse of “We Three Kings” that “Frankincense to offer have I; Incense owns a deity nigh; prayer and praising, gladly raising, worshiping God Most High” (in other words, the Magi were the first to recognize that in Christ God Himself had come to dwell with us). You will also remember that in the fourth verse we sing, “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breaths a life of gathering gloom, sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb” (in other words, the Magi were the first to recognize that the Messiah had been born to be crucified, as Daniel had prophesied). The last verse of this Carol encapsulated what we are saying about Christ each time we use incense: “Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice; heav’n sings alleluia: alleluia the earth replies.”

Already in the Book of Exodus there is reference to incense: In Exodus 30, God tells Moses to make an altar for the burning of incense. There, Aaron is to burn incense morning and evening. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, incense is often burnt together with the offerings of animals. The sweet smell of incense and its rising smoke became the image of something pleasing to God and the rising smoke came to symbolize prayers rising up to God. So in Malachi 1:11, God reminds us “From the farthest east to the farthest west, my name is honored among the nations and everywhere a sacrifice of incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering too, since my name is honored among the nations.” And in Psalm 141:2 we have the plea, “Let my prayer rise before you like incense. The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” And so in worship, incense came to be associated with the honoring of God’s majesty and to symbolize the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven.

Later, in the Book of Revelation, John has a vision of heaven in which the 24 elders are worshiping the lamb that was slain. As they worship, they hold gold bowls filled with incense, “which are the prayers of the holy ones.” (Revelation 5:8). In Revelation 8:3-4, an angel holding a gold censer is given a great quantity of incense to offer and the smoke of the incense goes up before God with prayers. Incense has been a meaningful part of Christian worship from the very beginning of the Church.

In the movie “The Way”, when the makers of the movie want to show Tom’s spiritual awakening toward the end of the movie, they have five or six Eastern Orthodox priests come out to begin swinging a HUGE censer that hangs on a bell-rope from the very-high ceiling of the huge church. As the priests pull the rope, this huge censer swings the entire length of this church — and what the movie makers are doing is using all of the powerful symbolism of what incense means to highlight the spiritual awakening that is happening with Tom: the mystery of the presence of God in worship, the prayers of the faithful rising to His throne, the activity of the angels who always worship God (and more).

The truth is, the use of incense adds a sense of mystery to worship. The visual imagery of the smoke and the smell of the incense remind us that heaven and earth are linked during worship, and that worship brings us into the very presence of God.

“Another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne. And the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God” (Revelation 8:3-4).

So let our prayer rise like incense, and let our incense rise like prayer, so that in all things God may be glorified!!!

Below is a wonderful version of Hillsong singing “Like Incense”, against the backdrop of incense. For those of you who are subscribers to my blog, I find that YouTube videos don’t survive the transition into your inbox (for some reason unbeknownst to me.) But if you just click on the top of the post, it will take you straight to the blog itself where you will find the video.

Here it is: Hillsong singing “Like Incense.”

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